Archive — Content design

Encouraging self-service through improving content at the University of EdinburghLauren TormeyGatherContent

Diagram demonstrating process of continuous improvement

My awesome colleague Lauren Tormey wrote this blog post about a brilliant project she’s been involved in. She has been collaborating with our Information Services Helpline to reduce unnecessary support calls by iteratively improving content with a regular cycle of usability testing.

Over two summers, we had done work to improve content related to getting a student ID card. This was another case of turning long pages with giant paragraphs into concise step-by-step pages.

From July to September 2017, the IS Helpline received 433 enquires related to student cards. For this same period in 2018, they received 224, so the figure nearly halved. I repeat: halved.

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The FAQ as advice column

The FAQ as advice column

FAQ sections are derided by most content designers, myself included. But (as usual) it is not necessarily the format itself that’s the problem. Normally, the real problem is bad implementation.

This piece by Caroline Roberts makes a provocative case in favour of FAQs, by comparing them with advice columns.

The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “FAQs about FAQs.” Or — you guessed it — “Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.

What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week.

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Using contractions could be making your writing inaccessible

Using contractions could be making your writing inaccessible

We found that some of these users did not understand sentences that had negative contractions in them (negative contractions are words like ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘don’t’). They interpreted the sentence without inferring the ‘not’.

I have been in two minds about using contractions for a while. On the one hand, avoiding contractions does seem to reduce ambiguity. But at the same time it can make your writing seem stilted and overly-formal.

As always with writing style, there will be no true answer, and the right way forward will depend on the circumstances. But if in doubt, it is worth considering avoiding contractions.

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Readability guidelines

Readability guidelines

I really like this idea of crowdsourcing, and making available to the community, a set of readability guidelines based on evidence.

I see many content designers spending time talking – arguing – about points of style when often accessibility and usability show what we should do.

What if there was one place where we, as a community, shared knowledge and created a style guide that was accessible, usable and – if we wanted – evidenced?

We could then spend time on the things that matter more to our organisations.

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Every breath you take, every move they make counts for WA paramedics

Every breath you take, every move they make counts for WA paramedics

Fascinating examples of how an ambulance service has experimented with their communications to save lives. A great example of how to use small experiments and tests to monitor improvements.

Asking “tell me what’s happened” instead of “tell me what happened” saves a staggering nine seconds, on average, per emergency call.

Studies have shown the first phrase prompts an immediate focus on the relevant detail, while the second prompts panicked callers on the line to tell meandering stories, full of unnecessary detail.

Saying “We’re going to do CPR,” instead of asking “Do you want to do CPR?” means a sharp rise in the number of bystanders agreeing to perform first aid while waiting for an ambulance.

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